'Have the men in India been staring at you?' Audrey asks as we queue up for a flight from Varanasi to Delhi. We're newly acquainted and each of us is at the tail-end of our first visit to this captivating, perplexing country. Neither of us is ready to leave it. Audrey poses a pertinent question, but before I can respond to it she delivers her own, unequivocal answer: 'They've been staring at me, and I'm 84!'
A week from now, when I've returned to Sydney and Audrey to Guadalajara, Mexico, those penetrating stares — sometimes menacing, sometimes judgmental, occasionally jocular and friendly — will turn away from foreign women travellers and look inwards, to the five men who are on trial for the gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman in December last year, and to the culture that allowed it to happen.
The trial will prompt India to examine its collective conscience, and to analyse the links between entrenched anti-female practices of the past and the way in which women are valued today.
'Here, girls have always been brought up to believe what their fathers and brothers say is God's word,' says my guide, Varsha, as she leads me around the Amer Fort in Jaipur. 'Now, in the cities at least, they are becoming more educated. Things are changing, but until they do, many young women will have to pay the price.'
It's a chilling thought, but one that's borne out by articles tucked deep inside the major newspapers,stories that somehow don't evoke the same public outrage as that afforded the Delhi victim: a four-year-old is raped and murdered; a 22-year-old is gang-raped so brutally her uterus must be removed; a woman is set alight by her husband; a UN report finds that 570,000 girls are 'not born' in India each year due to female foeticide.
Varsha takes me to the main entrance of the Amer Palace; above it are the delicately-wrought gates behind which the maharanis would sit in purdah, waiting for the king to return from battle. From here they would scatter upon him bright garlands of roses and marigolds, their joy manifested not necessarily by his survival but by the relief that came from knowing they would not have to sacrifice themselves on a funeral pyre beside him.
Such exquisitely-crafted palaces and forts seem to embody in their architecture the strangely dichotomous treatment of women in centuries past: the tightly-latticed purdah gates which concealed their visages, as though they were at once repellent and alluring; the marble-floored harems brimming with the king's concubines and guarded by eunuchs rather than sexually potent men; the palace compounds in which the king's wives would live, each shackled for life to a single man who himself could demand sex from almost any woman he desired.
Polygamy is no longer common in India, but other signs of gender inequality become apparent as I travel around Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, in the villages and towns where locals seem to live out their lives in public, in the crowded marketplaces that hem the narrow streets.
Men sit in congenial circles, smoking and drinking masala tea, squat on their haunches observing the passers-by, or recline on plastic chairs set out alongside snack stalls. But the women are seldom at rest: they toil in the fields, scrub clothes against slabs of concrete, walk long distances carrying pots of water or basins of buffalo dung on their heads, and fashion the dung into patties to be used as fuel.
In city hotels educated young women work as guest advisors and public relations managers, but in rural areas the women are conspicuously absent; it is men who sit behind reception desks, serve in the restaurants, deliver room service, make up the rooms. Female empowerment seems to have been halted at the cities' boundaries.
And it's here in the city that locals are fuelling debate about a crime they hadn't expected to touch them.
'What shocked Delhiites was not just the brutality, but the location,' says my guide, Arjun, as we drive from central to south Delhi, a pleasant, tree-lined area considered to be safe. This is where the unspeakable crime took place; it is where India was forced to sit up and acknowledge, as Shombit Sengupta does in The Sunday Express, that 'Men's barbaric ways are tormenting women in India.'
There are signs that efforts are being made to redress this imbalance: two headmen are recognised by the state government for improving the skewed gender ratio in their villages through the promotion of girls' education; girls, who are often killed at birth in rural villages or aborted by more affluent women who can afford ultrasound scans, are celebrated by India's Minister for Women and Child Development during National Girl Child Day.
A university announces it will introduce a night transport facility and 24-hour helpline for female students, and a panel headed by one of India's justices recommends that laws be updated to include crimes such as voyeurism and stalking, and that 'Eve-teasing' (sexual harassment that implies that women, like Eve in the Bible, are responsible for men's behaviour) be stamped out.
There's a hint of optimism from the past, too, a bright portent contained in India's most iconic memorial, the Taj Mahal. Embedded beads of cornelian stone give the edifice an orange glow in the early morning sunshine as I visit this symbol of love, dedication and respect for a woman. The main gate represents a veil; the Taj, the body itself. But it's the body that rises up, breaking free of the veil, confident in all its strength and sublime beauty.
Catherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer.